What is your name, year in school, and area of study? What are your preferred gender pronouns?
My name is Dirir Abdullahi and I am a first year medical student [going into] neuro-surgery and I go by he/him pronouns.
Why did you decide to pursue your major?
I realized that there was a huge disconnect between health care settings in this country and the immigrant/incoming refugee communities that my people predominantly come from. There's a sense of distrust [in our government] and a lot of the policies in work limit our people from accessing facilities and resources that are available for them. So I want to work as someone who can give access to our people, to understand that there are a lot of available resources in healthcare, and to be that difference and be that physician that they can go to and feel comfortable talking to.
Do you experience microaggressions from professors or students because of your identity? If so, can you describe an instance? What would you like others to learn from it?
Very interesting that you ask this, just yesterday, there was an incident with my professor. So what happened yesterday, in one of the social epidemiology courses, the professor, who is [also] the director of [the Master of Public Health] MD program, made many remarks [in regards to] the discussion…about Ebola and AIDS. One of the remarks that she said, which I had to [double-check I heard correctly], was, ‘as you know, Africans don’t talk about sex or anything of this sort so they lack that knowledge.’ I had to stare up at my fellow [colleague], the only other east African in the room, [and we] stared at each other, very confused at her statement. So I raised my hand and said, ‘It's not okay for you to make those kind of generalizations…’ [but] she cut me off before I even finished speaking and said, ‘I did not say that!’ in front of the whole class and [promptly] changed the subject. Afterwards, I had a very deep discussion with her and other professors, and [I] told her how disrespectful [it was] of her to [dismiss] a very serious concern that I had. Also, [to the mentioned professor]: you can’t make such generalizations no matter what research [has been] done. There's nothing you know about Africa that I don’t understand as someone who has lived experience as an African individual. It doesn’t matter what degree a white person gets [pertaining to] black folks and … someone's culture; they don’t live it, they don’t experience it, they know nothing about it. Making such generalizations undoes the work that you want to do. So [if] those are the natural kinds of microaggressions that I face from a socially conscious person, you can imagine the other things that I have to deal with.
What kind of advice would you give an undergrad in situations like this?
As immigrants and first generation students, we often doubt ourselves in situations like that and think that it is normal because we don’t know what normal is. My first suggestion is to locate your allies, and I mean the resources that are available for you to talk to. Minority groups, OMAD, groups within your major, [and] counselors who are people of color [and] take these people with you to talk to professors because it can be nerve-wracking to do that by yourself. Also, peers can be the best support because they understand the work that you do and advocate for you. Stay in contact with professors who are allies even after you finish the class.
Do you think your gender plays a role in how you are treated on campus or in the classroom?
It definitely plays a role in terms of the privileges that I have. I am a male so I definitely don’t experience as much as my Muslim sisters who are more obviously Muslim. So those are privileges that I have, in which I am not silenced as much as black women are silenced. There's no negative experience that I ever had because of my gender. I can't speak for other people, but personally, I have unearned privileges because of my gender.
In what ways does the UW lack diversity or community for Black students? What changes would you like to see?
I am one person, I don’t think my understanding of diversity and inclusion is monolithic with everyone else. The way I see it is that if a school does not have a safe space for you, if you don’t feel comfortable when you walk into the classroom, if you don’t feel welcomed, if you feel like you're being pushed away, these are all barriers that can limit your education and I feel every one of those when I go to UW Medical School. So, my ideal [medical] school will have a curriculum that discusses not just diabetes and its medicine, but [discusses] historically why is it that African American communities have a higher high blood pressure and diabetes rate than other groups. Don’t just tell me the science behind it, not just ‘the black people have it’. [They should be asking] what has slavery done? What has colonialism done? What has imperialism done to place certain groups in environments that have less resources, less vegetation, and more food deserts where there’s only a freaking liquor store down the street or a McDonald's? Why are they not talking about the barriers [limiting the] access [to] proper [healthcare] or [the construction of] sidewalks? Something so small [such as] where people can walk is important. Pollution, parks... etc. All of these things affect your health and your high blood pressure. So if I had a curriculum that teaches how this system was made for certain groups of people to not succeed, that would make me [feel] welcomed. A place where people don’t generalize and say ‘Africa’ when there's 54 countries in Africa and that it's not one monolithic group, even within one country. That would help.
What are your thoughts on this year’s presidential election?
Very interesting question. What people don’t realize is that everything that’s happening isn’t new. Because Trump is president doesn’t mean there's more problems, it just means that [what] people of color have been saying (I.e. that there's racism and that white supremacy harms people of color) has just become [more] evident to our white peers now because this country has chosen racism and white supremacy. People of color [have] been protesting [and] marching prior to this. Black people were being murdered by police prior to this. We’ve been having structural problems with the judicial system and health [care] system and education for a long time. None of this is new, it’s just given confidence to white supremacists to come out.
How do you stay true to yourself when faced with adversities related to your gender or race?
Well, there are a lot of positives in being a Muslim. It is hard when you're facing all of these issues, and it can feel overwhelming. But thank god we have a system in our religion that lets us put our trust in Allah. We have an outlet in that perspective where we can ground ourselves and that has been the number one thing that is keeping me sane. Knowing that I have a religion that preaches amazingness and that we have a god that always listens to us; that’s how I stay true to myself.
If you had the chance to give advice to a young Black child, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to expect a lot of hate. I know it is sad to say this. There was the video of the white teacher in a middle school calling her students the N word and cursing at them. Their mouths and jaws [had] dropped because the teacher is someone all kids are supposed to look up to. You respect your teacher. For her to say all of these derogatory terms to purposely hurt [students], at that age, is extremely hurtful to watch. It is extremely sad that we have to prepare our children from the very beginning to expect things like this and to know their worth. We need to have camps to teach young kids about their history, and who they are. That they [come] from people who are royals, people who created science and medicine and all of the infrastructure. I would advise to go back to your ancestors and understand who you are and the power you carry with you. [I advise them] to tap into that whenever they are feeling sad or alone, [and] that their ancestors went through a lot and succeeded, so they can too.